Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Treasury Department Secretary and current Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University, defended the concept of labor unions and blasted the South at a recent panel discussion at the Center for American Progress (CAP), but seemed to have a hard time remembering which century he lived in.
Summers said, “The Old Confederacy has lousy mobility relative to everywhere else” and continued, “[It] has a lot of things, a lot of segregation, a lot of single parenthood, a lot of dearth of unions…one fact, which is the Old Confederacy is weak.” He added, “Societies that are structured like the Old Confederacy work much less well than societies that are structured in a different way, like the abolitionist’s.”
Summers has been known to make very pointed, even acerbic, observations when focusing on fact. In his appearance at CAP, though, he ventured into the even riskier realm of speculation.
He lamented the decline of private sector unions, where unionism “has fallen by something like two-thirds.” Summers says it is “hard to believe that it is a good thing” for Americans and the middle class. “My guess is,” Summers hypothesized, “First, private sector unions by their nature, go hand-in-hand with private sector monopoly power and monopoly profit.” He said the “broad changes in economics have been adverse” for unions because “there’s less scope for unions” in the new economy.
“The second reason why unionism has declined,” Summers said, is that “Public policy has shifted.” He believes that today it is “much more easier [sic] for employers to resist unionization and that the enforcement of some protections as they are for union organizers has been greatly attenuated.”
“The third thing that has happened” to unions, Summers said, is that “the models of unionism that have been put forward have probably not fully kept pace with the changing nature of the workforce.” Summers noted, “Much less of the labor force [are] blue-collar” and the industries are shifting to more white-collar work. The labor unions “have not [undergone] full adaptation” necessary to adjust in today’s economic world. The disappearance of unions, in Summers’ opinion, means that “no one speaks for the middle class” today.